PETER FROST reports on today’s celebration of an important working class struggle.
Today beside the canal at Braunston a crowd will gather beneath a banner reading ‘1923 Braunston Canalboat Strike’.
Local villagers, canal enthusiasts and local Labour movement activists and trade unionists are gathered here today to celebrate an important milestone in working class and canal history.
In many ways today’s colourful gathering echoes what was happening exactly ninety years ago on this very spot. There are colourful historic narrow boats still bearing the legend of the canal carrier Fellows, Morton and Clayton.
There are people playing tunes on melodeons and concertinas. These little portable squeezeboxes were the traditional entertainments for the canal families living in the tiny cabins of the narrow boats before radio or TV.
We do know from contemporary reports there was music, dancing and even gramophones among the picketing families.
On the 13 August 1923 the entire traffic on the canal, one of Britain’s most important and vital transport arteries, came to a total halt. Braunston’s community of boat families on the canal were out on strike.
The Transport and General Workers’ Union (TGWU), had only been formed the previous year. The Braunston Canalboat Strike was to be a key strike bringing union organisation to an industry with no trades unions.
The TGWU went on to be the biggest Union in the world. Today the TGWU is part of the giant Unite the Union and they are a major supporter of these 90th Anniversary celebrations.
In the 1920’s, threatened by the competition from the railway and the general economic recession canal employers like Fellows, Morton and Clayton told the boat families that they would be cutting wages yet again, this time by another six and a half percent.
The strike, and the families selfless sacrifice, was to last for fourteen weeks.
At Braunston between fifty and sixty boats tied up in the approaches to the FMC wharf and along both sides of the Oxford and Grand Junction canals.
After six or so hungry weeks the striking boatmen were sent a letter containing formal notice. The letters went on to demand they quit their boats. In many cases the tiny boat cabins were their homes.
The TGWU instructed the boatmen to ignore the threatening letters and to stand firm.
FMC threatened the sackings because it was desperate to unload the strike-bound cargoes – a thousand tons of sugar and tea – on to lorries and to deliver them by road.
Three boats were moved from the wharf to the canal proper. Scabs attempted to unload the boats. The strikers resisted this extreme provocation.
The strikers and their women supporters moved in and stopped the unloading.
Then another attempt was made to unload the boats. This time police were drafted in to supervise the strike breaking.
Under strong police protection the boats were finally unloaded. The foreman of the wharf ended up in the canal tossed in by an angry boat captain.
At last, after 14 hard weeks, the strike was settled in some complicated legal actions in the courts.
The strike was an important victory, it bought trade unions to the canals and led to many fundamental improvements in the conditions of boatmen and their families.
That’s what we are celebrating at Braunston today.
Ideas for canal days out from ANN WESTBURY
Gongoozlers, it’s a wonderful word isn’t it. Working boat families on the English canals used it to describe the people who stood on the bank, or peered over a bridge to watch the boats go by. Here are a few ideas for waterside days out where you can try your hand at gongoozling.
Stoke Bruerne Museum, Northamptonshire.
This pretty little Northamptonshire canal side village has a fascinating canal museum. Pop inside the Boat pub and have a look at the canal paintings on the wall done by a
passing boatman to pay for an evening’s drinking many years ago. A cruise boat from outside the museum will actually take you into Blisworth tunnel. www.boatmuseum.org.uk
Anderton Boat Lift, Northwich, Cheshire
The Anderton Boat Lift is an amazing Victorian structure that lifts boats fifty feet from the river Weaver to the Trent and Mersey Canal. Shut in the 1980’s today the lift is open to boat traffic again. A trip boat from the museum will let you experience the lift for yourself.
Falkirk Wheel, Tamfourhill, Falkirk, Scotland
Most canal structures date back a century or two but the Falkirk wheel is a modern miracle. The wheel is unique, the only rotating boat lift in the world. An hour long boat trip takes you through the lift. www.thefalkirkwheel.co.uk
Foxton Locks, Leicestershire.
A staircase of ten locks, a museum and the remains of an impressive Edwardian canal lift make Foxton worth a visit. canalrivertrust.org.uk/directory/52/foxton–locks
Boat Museum, Ellesmere Port, Merseyside.
This wonderful museum tells the story of the waterways of the North West. canalrivertrust.org.uk/national-waterways-museum
Gloucester Waterways Museum, Gloucester Docks.
Housed in glorious Victorian warehouses in the beautiful docks at Gloucester this museum and boat collection makes a fine day out.
Giving the family silver to charity
The birth of the Canals and Rivers Trust.
There was no doubt that Maggie Thatcher had plans to privatise most nationalised industries in the 1980’s. She sold off our railways, our telephones, our waterworks, our power stations and much else.
Even that well known Bolshevik, ex Tory Prime Minister Harold MacMillan described Maggie’s privatisation frenzy as ‘selling the family silver’.
However even Maggie didn’t have much hope in finding buyers for the inland waterways. Commercial carrying had almost gone and the future of the canals was uncertain.
The 1947 Transport Act had nationalised most of the waterways; much of it as a side effect of the nationalisation of the railways, who by then actually owned and had shut down most canal carrying.
So the more than three thousand miles of canals, rivers and other inland waterways nationalised in 1948 stayed unsold, under funded and pretty unloved under The British Waterways Board (BWB).
Over the next decades the canals, surely the greenest of our transport infrastructure arms lost virtually all commercial carrying business to the voracious road transport lobby.
Finally our present Coalition Government came up with a new scheme. If they couldn’t find anyone to buy the canals they would privatise them anyway and run them as a charity a bit like the National Trust.
So it was that the Canal and Rivers Trust (CRT) was born with the government rubbing its hands in glee at the thought of another step towards the perfect capitalist market economy where volunteers will work for nothing and take the place of redundant paid workers.
The transition took a long hard struggle with anyone with any feelings at all for the future of the waterways realising that Cameron and his Defra waterways minister Richard Benyon were trying to do it on the cheap.
A long hard political battle finally achieved something like realistic funding but it was clear that much of what the new CRT had to do was to get out and about with the begging bowl.
Whether this new charitable structure will guarantee the future of our waterways is still a matter of debate. Enthusiastic volunteers are certainly doing all they can to make it happen. Their efforts are certainly praiseworthy.
However major works like landslips and major tunnel repairs will really challenge the financial viability of the new charity status. All charities are finding it hard in the present economic situation and CRT is no exception.
The long term future of Britain’s unique canal system is by no means certain. It has already lasted for several centuries – let’s hope it can survive a few more.
PETER FROST says waterborne carrying could be a green transport option again.
All across Europe river and canal barges move millions of tons of freight. They replace thousands of road journeys giving significant environmental benefits.
Although our waterway infrastructure is much smaller and less developed it certainly has potential for carrying much more freight than it does at present.
For heavy, dirty and non-urgent cargoes our major rivers and bigger barge canals, particularly in the North could offer significant opportunities for reducing road transport.
Smaller narrow canals surely should have a role in drought ridden Britain. We have never fully realised the potential of our canals as ways to store and shift vast quantities of that important resource water all across the nation.
Waterway ministers and lobbyists from the road transport industry might sneer but in a properly planned and sustainable economy water transport certainly has its part to play for a greener transport policy.
Let’s take a towpath walk says ANN WESTBURY
Today canals, once important trade routes, are a key leisure facility. Anglers, boaters, birdwatchers, industrial archaeologists as well as cyclists and simple walkers are among those who enjoy the waterways.
The whole network is in many ways a huge linear nature reserve and country park. Let’s take a peep.
Water lilies and tall velvety reed mace – you might know them better as bulrushes – soften the canal banks.
A grass snake is swimming with its head out of the water, she is hunting frogs and newts; both common inhabitant of these clean still waters.
That plop you heard is a water vole. This very rare beast is making a bit of a comeback on today’s cleaner waterways.
A proud mother duck quacks loudly as she leads her fluffy family of ducklings across the tranquil waters and a sparkling fish leaps clear of the water tempted by a juicy fly.
Colourful dragonflies flit among the waterside plants. Blackberries are there for the picking from the end of this month and the hedgerow promises a bumper crop of sloes for making sloe gin.
This feature first appeared to mark the 90th anniversary of the strike, 13 August 2013.